Claude Cahun Part I

A black and white photograph of Claude Cahun, a white person with dark hair slick back except for two curls slicked to curl over their forehead. They have dark eye shadow, very thin eyebrows, long, dramatic eyelashes, dark lipstick painted like a heart, and a heart on each cheek. They are wearing a white sweater, black shirts, and stockings. Their sweater says “I am in training; don’t kiss me” with a pair of lips. There is a heart on their stockings as well.

A black and white photograph of Claude Cahun, a white person with dark hair slick back except for two curls slicked to curl over their forehead. They have dark eye shadow, very thin eyebrows, long, dramatic eyelashes, dark lipstick painted like a heart, and a heart on each cheek. They are wearing a white sweater, black shirts, and stockings. Their sweater says “I am in training; don’t kiss me” with a pair of lips. There is a heart on their stockings as well.

“Make myself another vocabulary, brighten the silver of the mirror, blink an eye, swindle myself by means of a fluke muscle; cheat with my skeleton, correct my mistakes, divide myself in order to conquer, multiply myself in order to assert myself; briefly, to play with ourselves can change nothing.”

– Claude Cahun

The first decision to be made when writing about Claude Cahun is which pronouns to use. There are convincing arguments to be made for both she/her/hers and they/them/theirs; she/her/hers because that is what was used for Cahun when they were alive and used themself; they/them/theirs because of their oft-discussed detachment from being a woman or a man. The decision of they/them/theirs was made because that is the appropriate choice when one is unsure of what pronouns to use. This was the first question that was asked in the course of writing this article, but not nearly the last.

There are some clear things about Claude Cahun. They were born in France in 1894 to a prominent Jewish father and an anti-Semitic mother who struggled with mental health issues throughout Cahun's life. When their mother was admitted to a psychiatric facility, Claude went to live with their grandmother, Mathilde Cahun.

It is very likely because of Mathilde that Claude Cahun was able to gain a strong connection to their Jewish identity, as their father was not always practicing and their mother was not Jewish. While this connection grew, they continued to experience anti-Semitism, leading them to attend a private school in order to avoid discrimination. In 1909, they met Marcel Moore, in a moment they both compared to a strike of lightning.

Such a close relationship between two societally viewed "women" was legitimized eight years later in 1919 when Cahun's father remarried to Moore's mother. Looking back, many have suggested that there was an incestuous element to their relationship, failing to recognize that their relationship began several years prior to their parents' marriage. This creates an interesting dynamic; their position as step-siblings allowed them to move in together without suspicion in their own time but is now used to subtly cast a shadow over their perfectly normal relationship.

Cahun, who was beginning to explore photography, also found an artistic partner in Moore. Together in 1919, both took on gender-neutral names. The choice of "Claude Cahun" was particularly interesting because it was distinctly Jewish in a time when many were hiding indicators of their Jewish identity due to rising anti-Semitism in Europe, of which Cahun was aware.

Writing about this choice they said:

“I always used a pseudonym to write, the name of my obscure Jewish relatives (Cahun) with whom I felt more affinity.”

Dr. Michelle Gewurtz examines this choice, writing:

“Deliberately choosing not to write under the name Schwob was an attempt to distance [themself] from [their] illustrious father and uncle. Yet [they] did not dissociate [themself] from [their] Jewish identity, but in fact, underscored it. Considering that anti-Semitism was more prevalent in France at that time in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, this was a bold move. Writing to a friend in 1950, [Claude Cahun] stated that [they] took the name of [their] 'obscure' Jewish relatives, in contrast to [their] more 'famous' Jewish relatives: [their] uncle, the renowned Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob, [their] father Maurice Schwob, and [their] grandfather Georges Schwob, who were prominent publishers in France and editors of Le Phare de la Loire. The distinction here was between 'obscure' and 'famous,' while the Jewishness remained constant.”

In the end, they chose to connect themself to their grandmother rather than their father, even though their father's fame might have propelled their own career further. Though they are remembered primarily for their photography, they viewed themself as a writer. In 1925, they published "Heroines," a series of monologues based upon female fairy tale characters, religious figures, and Greek gods, including Salome, Delilah, and Judith.

Later, they would go on two write an autobiography, which is where both the clarity and confusion regarding their life and identity comes from. Within their writing, there is a trove of evidence that they were transgender. Given access to today's language, it's very likely they would have identified as non-binary.

While dysphoria is not a necessary element of being transgender, their clear and constant reference to feeling disconnected with their body fits well into the modern transgender narrative, with quotes like:

"I wish to change skins, to tear mine off."

“In front of the mirror, on a day full of enthusiasm, you put your mask on too heavily; it bites your skin. After the party, you lift up a corner to see…a failed decal. With horror, you see that the flesh and its mask have become inseparable. Quickly, with a little saliva, you regulate the bandage on the wound.”

“Make myself another vocabulary, brighten the silver of the mirror, blink an eye, swindle myself by means of a fluke muscle; cheat with my skeleton, correct my mistakes, divide myself in order to conquer, multiply myself in order to assert myself; briefly, to play with ourselves can change nothing.”

They consistently reference an ever-changing nature to their identity, which gives weight to the possibility that they may have identified as genderfluid if given modern language. They also discuss removal from gender as a whole. The following quote is often referenced in these discussions:

“Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

This quote could be further evidence of the genderfluid theory or an indication that they may have identified as agender, which is an identity that is described by A to Z Soup as:

“Someone who is without gender, or personally rejects the concept of gender for themselves.”

Unfortunately, this is all undercut by the fact that they state outright that the autobiography where much of this evidence comes from is not entirely based in fact, writing within the first page:

“Should I then burden myself with all the paraphernalia of facts, stones, cords delicately cut, precipices ... it doesn’t interest me at all”

That being said, there is also evidence outside of the book. Photos that consistently play with the idea of gender specifically in relation to Cahun, writing outside of the autobiography that gives similar indications, and the knowledge that while they refuse the burden of facts about their life within their autobiography that doesn’t immediately mean we should dismiss the entire thing as a fabrication.